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Commentary & Analysis

Preserving Digital Memory

June 2,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: June 2, 2003

June 2, 2003 -- As participants in the taskforce that looked at the challenges of digital preservation, we wrote in our report: "The storage of digital data will require a dynamic form of preservation, and a new definition of "archival" may have to be developed. The concept of long-term storage of a paper- or photographic-based item that remains unchanged over time may not be applicable with electronic publishing. Instead, the information will have to be re-recorded on new media to be used with existing file formats and computer operating systems as storage media degrade, and systems, formats, and encoding systems are evolved." "The digital history of this nation is imperiled by the very technology that is used to create it," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, as quoted in the Washington Post. The Library of Congress is now involved in the creation of a national network to preserve the digital memory of our country. "We are in danger of losing history itself," Billington said. "If we don’t save it, chances are nobody else will either." The Library of Congress (LOC) announced congressional approval of its plan for a National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP). The $100 million initiative was launched by Congress in 2000 to do for digital media what the world’s largest library now does for printed materials. The library receives more than 20,000 printed pieces each day but keeps less than half. It now must decide what digital information should be saved for future generations. Congress will match up to $75 million of private fundraising done by the library for the program. The library continues work with federal, university, and corporate partners to develop the infrastructure for data preservation and to catalog and preserve the country’s digital information. The challenge is overwhelming. Internet search-engine Google claims access to over 3 billion Web pages and the average Web page has a lifespan of a few months. Of all the Web content created in 1998, nearly half had disappeared by 1999. "Much of what has been created is no longer accessible," Billington said. "And much of what disappears is important, one-of-a-kind material that can never be recovered..." Beginning with the 107th Congress, the LOC started saving congressional Web pages. Preserving the Internet and other digital information has been undertaken by some private and nonprofit firms, such as the Internet Archive, which has been saving Web pages since 1996. Imagine the great library of Alexandria with one of every known manuscript in the ancient world. And in one day, more than a thousand years ago, it all perished in a fire. But the dream of collecting every one of the world’s books has been revived in a new medium—online. The directors of the new Alexandria Library, which christened a steel and glass structure with 250,000 books in October 2002 have joined forces with an American artist and software engineers in an ambitious effort to make virtually all of the world’s books available with a mouse click. Libraries already provide access to hundreds or even thousands of electronic books. Alexandria Library directors hope to link the world’s other major digital archives and to make the books more accessible than ever with new software. Copyright infringement, high costs, and language barriers are challenges for governments and major universities that can offer access to their own books and materials. At the moment, the project is paid for mainly by the library, which is supported by the Egyptian government and Unesco. The library will also have access to one million books that are now being scanned by Carnegie Mellon University, which is creating a vast digital archive and is one of Alexandria’s partners. The library has a vast store of Web material already donated by the Internet Archive, a California partner with similar universal online goals. The library then plans to begin bargaining for access to digital collections at other libraries and universities around the world, offering access to its own materials and its network of scholars in exchange. The software, CyberBook Plus, was designed to allow its use in different formats and languages, with a heavy emphasis on visuals rather than posted text. Paper is a common denominator for preservation, but the relentless march to digital information dissemination is forcing us to find ways to preserve the bits of today for the readers, researchers, students, and others of tomorrow. One lesson learned from the original Library of Alexandria is: don’t just have one copy.

 

 

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